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Theses Doctoral

Grieving Without God: Comparing Posttraumatic Growth, Complicated Grief, and Psychological Distress in Believers and Atheists During Bereavement

Sawyer, Jacob Scott

The purpose of this dissertation was to examine coping and outcomes of grief for atheist individuals during bereavement. The landscape of grief research has significantly changed since the days of Freud, and widely accepted stage theory models of grief have not held up to empirical review (Wortman & Silver, 1989). Emerging research examines factors that may lead to positive changes as a result of loss or trauma, known as posttraumatic growth. However, atheist individuals continue to be an understudied group in the psychological and bereavement literature, while people with religious beliefs continue to receive the most focus (Brewster, Robinson, Sandil, Esposito, & Geiger, 2014; D’Andrea & Sprenger, 2007). This study explored how cognitive (e.g., assumptions about the world), existential (e.g., meaning), and behavioral (active and emotional) coping methods are associated with posttraumatic growth, complicated grief, and psychological distress in a believer and atheist sample after the death of a close friend or family member. Specifically, posttraumatic growth, complicated grief, and psychological distress were regressed onto the three types of coping (cognitive, existential, and behavioral) using a hierarchical regression analysis. The first analysis controlled for demographic variables and the second analysis consisted of matched groups on demographic variables that were found to be associated with grief outcomes in prior research (e.g., Bonanno et al., 2008; Bonanno, Galea, Bucciarelli, & Vlahov, 2007). Exploratory bivariate correlations were conducted to assess interrelations between the variables of interest. Additionally, MANOVA was used to assess differences in demographic variables between the believer and atheist sample. Significant cognitive, existential, and behavioral coping methods were found to be associated with posttraumatic growth, complicated grief, and psychological distress. Furthermore, the endorsement of a belief in God(s) was significantly and positively associated with posttraumatic growth, but also significantly and positively associated with complicated grief and psychological distress. Results from this study can be used to identify appropriate clinical strategies for counselors working with grieving atheists, and will deepen the breadth of literature on bereavement and coping within diverse populations. Limitations and directions for future research are also discussed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Counseling Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Brewster, Melanie E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 25, 2017